In a new series, we look at the YouTube legacy of the great, the good and the infamous. This time, we shine a light on the author Evelyn Waugh.

His unforgettable works include Decline and Fall, A Handful of Dust, Brideshead Revisited and Vile Bodies. He was intelligent, charming and deeply argumentative. At once a wonderful writer and an unpleasant man, Evelyn Waugh is considered by many to be the greatest novelist of the 20th-century.

Born in Hampstead in 1903, Waugh says he wrote fluently by the age of seven. He called his first story, which was a warning against the temptations of betting, The Curse of the Horse Race. He endured a strict and bleak education at the Anglican school, Lancing College, after which he racketed around Oxford, drinking champagne and hanging out with aesthetes. Wanting to be a painter, Waugh then went to art school for a while.

He’d written his first novel – Decline and Fall – by the age of 25. His mountain of beautiful prose observes with piercing wit writers and artists, war and religion, aristocrats and party people. By the time he died, after Mass on Easter Sunday in 1966, he was a great society figure who’d grown utterly bored of society.

Waugh is variously known as a deeply insecure bully, a supreme conversationalist, a posturing bisexual, an incorrigibly funny friend and a very cruel man. He had seven children but on hearing that his wife was pregnant with one of them, he wrote to her: ‘It is sad news for you that you are having another baby.’

What are we to make, in this day and age, of this baffling man? The man who once said of himself: ‘I am restless & moody & misanthropic & lazy & have no money.’

Of course, there was no social media or reality TV in Waugh’s day. Public figures were able to keep much of their private personas hidden. So these YouTube clips feel like a rare and valuable portal into a bygone world.

John Julius Norwich On Evelyn Waugh

Here, the late historian John Julius Norwich amusingly recounts what he knew of Evelyn Waugh, who was a friend of his parents. Norwich speaks of Waugh’s love for his mother, the unspeakably glamorous actress and socialite, Lady Diana Cooper, and ‘tremendous’ rows with his father, the politician Duff Cooper. The man he depicts is not a nice one. These entertaining anecdotes cast the great novelist in a pretty awful light but the short clip leaves us wanting more.

Evelyn Waugh Interview For The BBC’s Face To Face

This 1960 interview for the BBC’s Face to Face series was Waugh’s television debut. It is YouTube gold. Afterwards, the incisive interviewer, John Freeman, said: ‘He was very difficult. He was very uptight. I think he disliked me. I am disappointed that I didn’t succeed in getting more out of him.’ Throughout, Waugh appears obstructive, curt and only half interested. Your eyes will be on stalks as he grapples with the interview, chins spilling over checked lapels and cigar in hand. Just when it gets too awkward to bear, a beady little smile creeps across Waugh’s face, giving us the slightest hint of his well-documented charm.

Arena Presents The Waugh Trilogy (Part One)

In this absorbing, hour-long look at Waugh’s life, we watch his son Auberon reading from The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Auberon says of his father: ‘When he wasn’t suffering from depression, he really did live for jokes.’ We watch Diana Mosley reading from Vile Bodies. She recalls his ‘extraordinary eyes… full of humour and intelligence’ and that ‘he couldn’t bear stupid people’. We see photographs of a young Waugh and his siblings and of an older Waugh with his wife and children. There are charming childhood drawings and diary entries. It’s a brilliant documentary in which we get to grips with the antagonistic man who made a life’s work out of observing others.

Sir Harold Acton’s Memories Of Evelyn Waugh

In this sweet 1987 interview, the writer Sir Harold Acton remembers Waugh, whom he met for the first time at Oxford in the 1920s. The clip is illuminating about Oxford undergraduate life for Waugh’s colourful set. Acton says: ‘He was a very noisy person at Oxford. After a few drinks, he used to rush around the streets shouting little slogans and… he used to insult people he disliked.’

Alexander Waugh On His Grandfather

Here, in a lecture theatre at Georgetown University in 2012, Waugh’s grandson addresses a rapt audience about the great man. Don’t expect great production values – or vivid memories, for that matter. But Waugh has some charming stories up his scruffy sleeve about his ‘eccentric’ and ‘snobbish’ and ‘very funny’ grandfather.

By Becky Ladenburg
March 2021

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Becky Ladenburg

Features Editor

As the GWG's features editor, Becky has her discerning finger on the cultural pulse. She's also our go-to expert on the property market.